Breaking: Observation of Dark Matter Bridge Between Galaxy Clusters

With all the talk about the Higgs boson (fully justified! hooray!), another significant story runs the risk of getting lost. It’s not as triumphant, perhaps—after all, the hunt for the Higgs began decades ago—but it’s still important, especially for cosmologists like me.

One of the key pieces in the modern cosmological concordance model is dark matter, the invisible substance that comprises about 80% of all the mass in the Universe. Even though it was first proposed in the 1930s by Fritz Zwicky, the evidence of dark matter’s existence is indirect. To this day, we don’t know what kind of particles make up dark matter, only that they aren’t the same stuff as atoms, they aren’t neutrinos, and larger objects like brown dwarfs or black holes don’t have the right behavior. Despite not knowing the identity of the lurker, we see its footprints in galaxy clusters, the rotation of spiral galaxies, and the cosmic microwave background. In other words, most astronomers, cosmologists, and particle physicists are pretty certain the stuff exists, even though we can’t ID it yet.

Composite image of the galaxy clusters Abell 222 and 223, along with the mass distribution, shown in blue and the yellow contours. The clusters themselves are high concentrations of mass, but there’s an additional structure that contributes almost no light: a filament of dark matter connecting the two clusters. This kind of filament is predicted by the theory of large-scale structure. (Image by Jörg Dietrich, University of Michigan/University Observatory Munich.)

Another major piece of evidence was published in Nature today (good timing, right?). Astronomers using archival data from the Subaru telescope in Hawaii and X-ray data from the orbiting XMM-Newton observatory have found a probable dark matter filament connecting two galaxy clusters. They used weak gravitational lensing, when a concentration of mass magnifies the light of an object far behind it, without creating a coherent image. The structure the researchers found has as much mass as a small galaxy cluster itself, but doesn’t have enough galaxies or ordinary matter. While galaxy clusters are full of hot gas, the X-ray observations of the gas in the  filament show it only has about 9% of the total mass. The rest of mass must come from something else, so why not dark matter? (For more details about the discovery, see my Ars Technica article.)

Detailed computer simulation of the large-scale structure of the Universe. Each dot represents a concentration of dark matter. The larger blobs are dark matter halos for galaxy clusters, which are linked by long strands of dark matter known as filaments. The paper I discuss in the main text describes the detection of one of these filaments for the first time.

By itself, this discovery is pretty exciting, but it’s important for another reason. The distribution of galaxies and galaxy clusters  in the Universe is known as the large-scale structure (LSS). In LSS theory, dark matter collects (via mutual gravitational attraction) into halos, which attract the ordinary matter that becomes galaxies and so forth. However, the halos are connected to each other in a giant web, as shown in the image on the left: each dot represents a concentration of dark matter. The bigger blobs are galaxy clusters, but there are also thinner strands known as filaments. Because ordinary matter concentrates most in the halos, the filaments may contain very little to make them directly visible, even if they have a lot of dark matter mass.

The 2-degree Field (2dF) galaxy survey by the Anglo-Australian Observatory counted all the galaxies in a 2-degree swath of the sky. (For comparison, the Moon is about 1/2 degree wide.) The observations agree with the theory of large-scale structure, which is further evidence in favor of dark matter’s existence.

Galaxy surveys, such as the 2-degree Field (2dF) survey, bear out the predictions of LSS theory: the galaxies are distributed in number and position exactly where they should be if the cosmic web is actually present. However, the filaments have proven elusive; previous observations have found them via X-ray emissions from hot gas, but nobody had measured their dark matter content—until the present study. Measurement of the dark matter mass in this filament is the Bullet Cluster for LSS: it reveals what should be there, but which has been hard to find independently.

My fellow cosmology blogger Ethan Siegel chided me for skimping in the discussion of LSS in my earlier post on the subject, “Is Cosmology in Shambles?“. In fact, I evidently equivocated too much for many people’s tastes, leading some to even think I take the side of those who think dark matter isn’t real. Rereading that post today, I understand acknowledge the validity of these criticisms, so let me state plainly for the record: no, I don’t think cosmology is in shambles, and yes, I think the balance of evidence is strongly in favor of dark matter’s existence. Things are complicated enough on the scale of galaxies and smaller structures to leave a little room for alternative ideas, but any theory replicating the success of the dark matter model has a lot of different phenomena to explain—including this new dark matter filament discovery.

13 responses to “Breaking: Observation of Dark Matter Bridge Between Galaxy Clusters”

  1. Over the past 80 years astronomers have accumulated a variety of different *types* of cases in the Universe where *invisible* mass has produced apparent gravitational effects. Any one of these cases might be explained away with an ad hoc theory, such as the Modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND) explanation for the spiral galaxy rotation problem, for which dark matter is the usual hypothesis. But MOND doesn’t work for some of the other *types* of dark matter cases, such as the one discussed here. So, as we accumulate more and more *types* of cases, we are better and better able to constrain our theories. This new type of filamentary structure which can bend light, and thereby reveal its otherwise invisible mass, has the nice feature that it is probably going to be easy to find elsewhere on the sky, so that we may have a whole zoo of these filamentary cases with a few years of work. As an observational (not theoretical) cosmology person, I love it. Thanks, Matthew, for this report.

  2. Torbjörn Larsson, OM Avatar
    Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Thank you for making the missing piece of dark matter visible in such a momentous week.

    But I don’t buy that we need to know every property of a system to use it in structure formation.

    We accepted the existence of clouds and fogs, and their effects on local weather, way before we realized they may be made of small water drops, I’m certain. Similarly we should be able to accept dark matter formations seen in weak lensing and their effects on structure formation before we know what mass and density the “drops” are.

    [I’m also disparaging of the use of “direct vs indirect” observation, which doesn’t seem very definable. I can understand how we make unambiguous observation after tweaking our experiments.

    But “direct”? Do we need photons, how closely do they need to interact with the observed system, what properties should they see, how should we capture our probe particles?

    But that doesn’t matter here.]

    But yes, of course there can be a substitute early on. I think that ship has sailed even before this. (IMHO the Eris simulation closed the case, as it threw “alternate gravities” out of their last hold, galaxy formation.)

    Maybe something really surprising can turn it around. I wouldn’t hold my breath though.

  3. Torbjörn Larsson, OM Avatar
    Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Thank you for making the missing piece of dark matter visible in such a momentous week.

    But I don\’t buy that we need to know every property of a system to use it in structure formation.

    We accepted the existence of clouds and fogs, and their effects on local weather, way before we realized they may be made of small water drops, I\’m certain. Similarly we should be able to accept dark matter formations seen in weak lensing and their effects on structure formation before we know what mass and density the \”drops\” are.

    [I\’m also disparaging of the use of \”direct vs indirect\” observation, which doesn\’t seem very definable. I can understand how we make unambiguous observation after tweaking our experiments.

    But \”direct\”? Do we need photons, how closely do they need to interact with the observed system, what properties should they see, how should we capture our probe particles?

    But that doesn\’t matter here.]

    But yes, of course there can be a substitute early on. I think that ship has sailed even before this. (IMHO the Eris simulation closed the case, as it threw \”alternate gravities\” out of their last hold, galaxy formation.)

    Maybe something really surprising can turn it around. I wouldn\’t hold my breath though.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM Avatar
    Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Sorry for the double posting! I responded stupidly to my NoScript advisory.

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